Don’t judge a book by its Cover
Well, I have to tell you, I have never purchased a book because of its cover, ever. This comes from a guy who enjoys perusing the wine aisles in grocery stores admiring the unique labels. Reviews, recommendations, and favorite authors influence my purchases. And, if I were a wine enthusiast, I probably wouldn’t select my bottle of grape juice because of its label, no matter how colorful and creative. Dust covers and labels are important marketing tools. Creatives spend a great deal of time and effort designing them. Their inviting designs urging, tempting, daring you to select them from the overcrowded shelves. Countless books and web sites are devoted to art of cover design. Brand recognition linking the author to the book is much like creating a corporate logo. A cover style, color, font type, picture or drawing can become synonymous with an author’s identity and ignite brand loyalty. Take for example the “for DUMMIES” franchise or the Bill O’Reilly “Killing” books with their distinct flavor, immediately recognizable covers. In 1928 before launching his label Victor Gollancz paced railroad platforms trying to identify which color stood out the most in a crowd. He decided on a shockingly bright, yellow cover printed on special nonfading paper. Combined with the black type of Stanley Morison, designer of the Times Roman font. Look familiar?
A book cover’s design can be simple or complex. Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries with protagonists Jim Chee and Lieutenant Leaphorn wore jacket covers with a distinct Southwestern flavor. Embossed fonts, artwork, and foil enhancements were used. His daughter continues their adventures with covers true to the originals.
Titles by Jackie Collins and Sidney Sheldon used bubblegum colors and fancy fonts. At the time of their popularity they were simple and easily recognizable. The same holds true for James Clavell’s saga with white cover and predominant black and red fonts and simple artwork.
Steve Berry and Dan Brown books are instantly recognizable with names topside above titles and dark distinct artwork which is carried over to their websites a fine example of branding.
And who can forget James Patterson’s Alex Cross novels, they all contain foil enhancements, ominous drawings, the cleaver use of protagonist’s name in the title, and an inviting blurb. You may have noticed this particular group of bestselling mystery writers have designers working from the same color palette.
There is evidence dating back to 1352 BC, from King Tut’s burial site indicating the ancient Egyptians were the first to label their wine detailing vintage, growing region or vineyard, and winemaker. It was in the Persian Empire where labeling wine became a necessity. In fact, the Persian Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) had an elaborate culture of wine drinking. Unlike the long history of the wine bottle label the dust jacket wasn’t introduced until the 19th century. Books were an expensive item and usually sold with pages in unbound stacks. It was up to the purchaser to commission a binding and cover. An English publisher, William Pickering, began binding books in leather, fine cloth and other materials. Publishers followed Pickering’s lead and during the 1820s cloth bindings became the norm. The need to protect the book during transportation from the publisher to bookseller to purchaser became evident. Plain wrapping paper was wrapped around the entire book and sealed into place. This innovation, at the end of the decade, became the first dust jackets. When a book was purchased during this time, the buyer would take it home and tear off the dust cover and discard it. As time progressed windows were cut into the dust jacket to expose the cover’s simple and expensive designs. Over time the designs were replicated on the wrappers themselves and the decorative dust jacket was born. This is the oldest dust jacket known dating from 1830. Prior to this discovery the earliest known example of a dust jacket dated back to 1833. A pale buff paper printed in red created by publisher Longmans to protect copies of Heath’s Keepsake. This particular dust cover included advertisements for other Longmans publications placing it way ahead of its time in marketing. Should you be interested, during the Renaissance and by the 18th century the wine trade soared in France, where Bordeaux became the preeminent producer of fine wines. Early label designs in Europe were nothing more than a small identifying piece of parchment tied with a string around the neck of the bottle. Another means of identification was a pewter base carved with the description of the wine region.
By 1798, lithography had been invented and wine labels could be mass produced. The winemakers pride grew in the quality of their wine and creating the perfect label to show it off became most important. Colorful designs became popular. On the other hand, the publishing industry began to slowly realize the dust jacket’s importance as an advertising tool during the late 19th century. British publishers started to utilize the jacket’s valuable real estate for book promotions, as well as, advertising space for other publications. The publisher’s ‘blurb’ was first introduced around 1910 and could include a synopsis, author biography, portrait, and/or information about the author’s earlier works. After WWI, the book jacket standards rose considerably as famous artists started to work commercially, designing dust covers. The wine industry also employed respected artists to design their labels. One of the most sought after, prized, and collected wine brands of all time is Mouton Rothschild. In the 1920s, in an attempt to modernize his winery Philippe de Rothschild, in a bold move, decided to market his wines with beautiful labels. He enlisted important artists of the time to create original label designs to enhance marketability. It became a permanent practice in 1946. Viotti wines have been dressed with specially-designed original works of art, inspired by the wine of that particular vintage, since 1974. The print run is the same as the number of bottles produced. The first one hundred are signed by the artist and only used once.
The metamorphosis of the dust jacket is completely of British design. The British Library started a collection of dust jackets in the 1920s. There are over 11,000 items in the collection today, the majority of which are British publications. The oldest covers in the British Library Dust Jacket Collection date from 1919. In despite of their ephemeral design, a few examples of dust jackets prior to 1890s exist. It wasn’t till the end of the 19th century when the British publishers began to realize the advertising value of book covers. The design function of the dust jacket evolved into an effective promotional tool. The wrapper converted into the jacket probably to save paper. Around 1910 color was added, but not received well by the British, they considered it purely American. It wasn’t till the 1920s when color jackets entered the mainstream. The war was over, the American economy was vibrant, visual imagery was everywhere in the movies, newspapers, magazines, and advertising. This enthusiasm spilled over into the Publishing industry. The throwaway jacket covers were here to stay. The wine label evolved from a handwritten piece of parchment hung on a bottle’s neck by a French monk, Pierre Perignon, into the familiar design we appreciate today. This is the oldest known record of a handwritten wine label. Labels and book covers provide a visual record of the past. The pictures, paintings, portraits, fonts, colors, synopses, blurbs and the overall designs fuel the time machine. The authors, artists, painters and graphic designers are the pilots maneuvering the gauntlet of time. Alan Lane made a proposal to his publisher for a series of cheap, mass-produced, paperbacks that would be instantly recognizable. The British upper-crust publisher rejected his proposal. In 1935 Lane launched Penguin Books with ten titles sold through Woolworths. The price was five times cheaper than the average hardcover price. Penguin had somehow managed to produce an intellectually respectable product and its readers became extremely loyal. And the rest, as they say, “is history”.
The 1920s and 1930s is considered the ‘golden age of book jackets’. Talented and famous artists were attracted to the medium. As time progressed the artists were replaced with graphic designers, employed by publishers. The author’s participation was a rarity. J.D. Salinger demanded control over his covers, he despised all pictures, blurbs, and reviews. Penguin’s edition of The Catcher in the Rye had a simple grey cover. Book covers often change with each new edition and Salinger kept a watchful eye for any transgressors. Authorial designs are rare, but some authors consider themselves cover artists. J.R.R.Tolkien designed the cover for The Hobbit. The 1932 dust jacket for Opium. The Diary of an Addict by Jean Cocteau was designed by the author. And some authors participate in the production of the cover only: illustrator selection, blurbs, design and typography etc.
Blow Your Cover
The ephemeral design of the protective and disposable dust jacket transformed into the advertising cornerstone of the publishing industry, and is once again, besieged by change. Since the birth of the ebook on July 4, 1971 the popularity of ereaders has increased exponentially.
Digital publishing has changed the way we view and read our favorite author’s work. The dust jacket has been reduced to 768 X 1004 pixels. The smaller sizes force the designer to create relevant and coherent designs readable on a variety of devices. Gone are the front and back flaps, the spine, back face, and headband. And forget about an autographed copy. The dust jacket is now limited to the confines of the front face. This limitation has increased the value of the title and author’s name. Peruse the aisles of your local wine store and notice the catchy names. It’s A Head Snapper, Middle Sister, Bare Foot, Blindfold, Butterfly Kiss, Troublemaker, The Dreaming Tree, Ghost Pines, Wild Horse, and Decoy just to name a few, all taken from the shelves at my neighborhood Safeway. Created to capture our undivided attention and inspire us to open our digital wallets. Would any oenophile find relevance in these names? I don’t know, but they sure caught my eye. It has always been my intention to design my own book covers. I had visions of an animated cover followed by pages of blurbs, bio, and animated back cover. When the book was opened for the first time an autograph would magically be scribbled across the cover. These are all things I am working on, however the technology is not quite there. My approach to the cover design is simple; I see it as a graphic puzzle. I want potential buyers to be attracted to the cover and subconsciously assemble the pieces, revealing the storyline trapped on the pages. And how do you accomplish this? Simple. Every element on the cover should have a distinct purpose relating to the story. Take my book VORMUND there is a title (the German word for guardian), author’s name, colors white and black split in the center (life or death, good or evil?), the leafless tree, extensive root system with one small root full of life? The creature perched on the branch, a bird or something else? Then there is the blurb ‘See the Words’. All clues to the storyline. For my upcoming novella The BookHunter the cover is still a Work In Progress. The cover is posted on Behance with a number of clues to the storyline with more being added through updates.
The next time you are in the market for a new book or ebook make note of the covers they can be interesting.